(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2009)
The new film Sunshine Cleaning isn’t a big deal, but it’s an honest portrayal of getting by in hard times, entertaining and moderately enlightening without being frivolous or preachy. The raw materials are highly familiar. Virtually every critic pointed out the filmmakers’ apparently overt desire to replicate the success of Little Miss Sunshine (see repetition in title, and Alan Arkin playing another flavourful grandfather). The focus on two sisters, one always having to take care of the other, heavily recalls Curtis Hanson’s In Her Shoes (which I know itself reminded me heavily at the time of something else…) And so on for much else in the movie.
Amy Adams plays Rose, a former cheerleader, now working for a cleaning service, bringing up her son alone, having an affair with a married cop. He tunes her into the lucrative crime scene clean-up business – removing bloodstains, organic matter: the dirty job someone has to do but no one ever thinks about. She pulls in her younger, disruptive sister Norah (Emily Blunt) and things take off quickly, although they only learn the basics along the way (for example, that you can’t merely throw everything into a dumpster). As you’d imagine, there are reversals; as you’d also imagine, they mostly get by them.
The film starts with a suicide in a gun store, and the residue of past tragedies marks it throughout. In one scene a bewildered old woman waits for them outside the house where her husband killed himself; the inside is full of post-it notes bearing day-to-day instructions he’d written to himself, presumably trying to ward off Alzheimer’s. There doesn’t seem to be much mobility – Rose still runs into girls from high school, usually doing better than she is, but living in the kind of prettified excess that we know embodies the tapped-out American consumer. It’s a scrupulous film about these kinds of things, and convincing in such things as Rose’s approach to her affair (and, for that matter, in the camera’s approach to her as an attractive woman, but in a way bearing no sign of Hollywood make-over).
In a way, the film’s trajectory represents the more “creative,” self-sufficient society we’re often told represents our best way period – through a bit of luck and application, you find a niche and move into it. One worries the number and variety of these niches is much smaller than the hopes attached to them (how many people really make a good living selling things on Ebay, or from developing their own websites?), and the film – although obviously written and filmed a while ago – taps precisely into the credit crunch’s threat to heartland entrepreneurism: good ideas need financing, maybe a lot of it.
All of this is still uncommon enough in mainstream cinema that Sunshine Cleaning projects an unpretentious integrity. I also liked director Christine Jeffs’ (she’s best known for the rather grim Gwyneth Paltrow movie about Sylvia Plath) subtly assertive approach to her female protagonists (both very well acted by Adams and Blunt). At the end, Rose may be on the verge of entering into a new romance, but the film couldn’t present that much more offhandedly; Norah’s sexuality, meanwhile, seems somewhat ambiguous. Either way, the film seems to avoid the common trap, as someone (I forget who) put it, of suggesting that even strong and capable women only find their fulfillment in the eyes of a man.
In other ways, the film is pretty minor. The writing isn’t that bracing. Arkin seems mostly to be doing shtick, only tenuously related to the rest of the film (albeit pleasant enough to watch). The subplot about the sisters’ deceased mother (also reminiscent of In Her Shoes) pumps up the renewal/ redemption aspect perhaps a bit too much. But you still come out way ahead. In the end, Rose’s commercial prospects are on a momentary upturn, but only by ramping up the personal risk. Still, things being what they are, it’s more promising than her earlier ambition, to become…wait for it…a real estate agent). Meanwhile, Norah is on the road, and it’s tempting to think that Wendy & Lucy takes up the story from there.
Still, Sunshine Cleaning is much more optimistic than not; it generally (albeit cautiously) supports the premise that America is large and diverse enough to afford an answer to almost every personal crisis; or failing that, remains better than most alternatives. Sin nombre, directed by Cary Fukunaga, has lots of momentum and energy, but the only even vague prospects, it seems, lie to the north. A family from Honduras heads up into Mexico, aiming ultimately towards family in New Jersey. In Chiapas, Mexico, a young gang member falls out with the other members. The narratives cross paths, murderously; now the gang refugee travels with the Hondurans, but pursued by his former brothers, seeking blood revenge.
The film is undeniably gripping; it’s a much more kinetic piece of cinema than Sunshine Cleaning. Anthropologically, it’s fascinating at every step, whether illuminating mass deprivation (the familiar juxtaposition of natural beauty increasingly receding from layers of squalor and sprawl), the grasping at faint hope, or gang habitats and rituals. This last element, though, also embodies reservations about the high dependence on melodrama and manipulation. The lead performances feel authentic and deeply felt, but the movie does feature a lot of unlikely, big-screen-worthy behaviour and a lot of sleazy, strutting violence. It’s impossible, from this perspective, to know how much this reflects an outsider’s quasi-romantic impositions on a sadder and duller reality (Fukunaga is an American), but it’s hard not to have suspicions. In this sense, the film falls under the same broad umbrella as Slumdog Millionaire, although in comparison with that picture’s irresponsible excesses it feels like the work of Robert Bresson.
The film only provides the briefest glimpse of America at the end – an anonymous big box landscape that might as well be on the moon compared to what we’ve seen previously. Sin nombre doesn’t damn South America exactly, but it doesn’t spend much time illuminating its virtues either – throughout there’s a feeling of heat and claustrophobia and confusion and threat; a volcano either spewing people out or swallowing them up. Certainly the contrast with American urban commercialization is striking, but it’s also easy; it’s disappointing not to come away with a more piercing aftertaste. Still, we can again provide our own extrapolation, that with much work and relative luck, the journey of Sin nombre might connect somewhere with that of Rose in Sunshine Cleaning, and however temporarily, her problems would seem like victories, the kind of bourgeois worries available only to those nearer than it feels to the top of the global pyramid.